Feminism is a significant theme addressed in many literary works of the contemporary period. In the 1800’s and early 20th century, many women were oppressed and denied the right to equal opportunities that men were granted. However, after the active and significant role women played in World War II, a drastic change occurred. Women began to play a more respected and crucial role in society. Many women abandoned their expected roles as housewives and mothers and looked for other valued opportunities. This societal shift became a political movement and spawned the social theory of feminism. There was a momentous crusade for equal rights.
Women were motivated to eliminate the gender stereotyped roles that were hindering their progression in society. Women began to openly voice their beliefs on equality. They fought for social, political, and economic equality. This movement inspired many female writers to challenge the sexist ideologies held against women and advocate the right for equality in their poems, stories, and novels. Two significant contemporary feminist writers of this period are Margaret Atwood and Sally Ito. Atwood and Ito’s literary works stress female empowerment, equality, celebrate womanhood, and portray the importance of the female role in society.
Margaret Atwood conveys powerful and passionate feminist themes, issues, and conflicts through many of her literary works. Atwood portrays a realistic view and illustration of women in society, focusing on the ways in which females are hindered and victimized by gender-typing and stereotypes. In the prose, “Happy Endings,” Atwood mocks and argues against the traditional fairy tale of the ideal relationship between men and women. She challenges the stereotypical characterization of men and women through different scenarios, using satire to poke fun at society’s flawed misconceptions about relationships between the sexes. In scenario A, the ideal husband and wife, John and Mary, live happily in their nice house, have interesting careers, two children, an active social life, and are able to retire living out the rest of their life happily (Atwood). Atwood mocks this scenario as the fairy tale life and argues that it is unrealistic to the lives of contemporary families and relationships.
In another scenario, Atwood tackles the challenging task of displaying a more realistic relationship and the appalling way in which women are sometimes treated. Atwood illustrates the character of Mary as weak and regarded by John as an object. Mary worries about pleasing John and is determined to get his attention by preparing him dinner and looking nice for him. John, however, does not care about Mary and “. . . merely uses her body for selfish pleasure and ego gratification of a tepid kind” (Atwood). Mary believes that she can use sex as a weapon to hold on to John. She is blinded by her love for him and refuses to accept or believe that she is treated badly by John. Atwood states that, “John goes out the door with hardly so much as a good-night and three days later he turns up at six o’clock and they do the whole thing over again” (Atwood). Mary is trapped in a vicious loveless cycle with John.
She is unable to find the strength to break this cycle and fears she is nothing without John. In another scenario, Atwood addresses freedom in relationships and the notorious double-standard theory. Mary is stuck in a relationship between two men, John and James. John is an older married man having an affair with Mary, but is in love with her. James is a wild young man free from life’s commitments. Mary is not impressed by John, but is infatuated by James’ free and unbridled life. James is often away seeing the world upon the seat of his “flashy” motorcycle. Atwood states that, “Freedom isn’t the same for girls, so in the meantime Mary spends Thursday evenings with John.
Thursdays are the only days John can get away” (Atwood). Mary’s life is insignificant and she is stifled into planning her life around John and James’. This scenario displays the subservient and obedient roles women were expected to take on in many relationships. In the remaining scenarios of Atwood’s prose, “Happy Endings,” two other characters are introduced, Fred and Madge. These characters illustrate more practical and equal roles in the male-female relationship. Atwood erases the sexist ideologies against women in these scenarios, concluding that whatever the relationship story may be “. . . the endings are the same however you slice it” (Atwood). The reality is men and women both die and that in life, women should not be considered submissive idealists.
Sally Ito also celebrates womanhood and feminism in many of her literary works. Ito voices strong feminist themes, depicting women as empowering and compelling figures. She centers much of her writing on portraying women realistically and commemorating the bonds shared by women. In the poems, “Sonata for Three Sleeping Women” and “Sisters of the Modern Mind,” Ito honors the bonds of sisterhood and links the diverse stages and experiences of a woman’s life. The poem, “Sonata for Three Sleeping Women,” illustrates Ito’s feminist view of the remarkable journey from girlhood into womanhood.
Ito relates the innocence and purity of childhood to a peacefully sleeping child, “. . . dreaming of the night’s darkness passing in grace of he who answers prayers forever” (Ito). The child breathes easy and gently, sheltered from the world and its pain. Ito compares new love and passion to a young woman tensely sleeping anticipating, “. . . the brink of love’s summation” (Ito). A picture is painted of the dreams of many young women and the beauty of everlasting love. Ito describes old age as the realization that life is not forever and the significance of every night and breath. Darkness signifies the end of each day and women are able to cherish their memories and “Now breath for breath’s sake” (Ito).
In the poem, “Sisters of the Modern Mind,” Ito describes the special and unique bond of sisterhood. She conveys that, in life, women can take many different courses. Some women are stimulated by the need for knowledge and intellectual growth. Other women seek out stimulating careers, while others long for the love and nurturing bonds of motherhood. Women have the freedom to take on many of these roles in society and are not to be hindered or pigeonholed into one stereotypical category. The diverse stages and paths of life are what link women together as sisters. Ito reveals that, “. . . time and anatomy still wear at our bones like the tide upon the sand that tosses the jeweled shells, you and I, sisters, of the wave” (Ito, 188). Women are affected the same by time and the experience of life’s journey. This is what Ito emphasizes as the remarkable bond of sisterhood.
The literary works by Margaret Atwood and Sally Ito convey a very powerful, realistic, and feminist view of women in the contemporary period. They honor and celebrate womanhood in many of their writings helping to eliminate the sexist ideologies held against women in society. Atwood and Ito were significantly inspired by the feminist movement and its impact on modern society. Their literary works signify the crusade for equal rights and pay tribute to the emancipated female in contemporary times.